After finally getting to experience Hamilton (and I use that word deliberately), I feel compelled to write about its powerful beauty, its triumphant creativity, and its stunning brilliance.
All the hype about it is totally justified. I have been going to musicals since I was a child, and I have many favorites, but Hamilton is far and away the best musical I have ever experienced. I can’t just say the best that I have ever seen, because Hamilton involves all five senses, including what I would call the sixth sense which I hope to feel whenever I go to the theatre – the “goosebump” effect.
For those of you who may have been hiding out in a bunker for the last few years, Hamilton is the story of Alexander Hamilton, “the ten-dollar Founding Father without a father” who prior to the best-selling biography by Rod Chernow was best known as the guy who was killed by Aaron Burr in a duel. Lin-Manuel Miranda read the book and immediately identified with Alexander, who came to NY as a poor immigrant from a tiny Caribbean island, “young, scrappy and hungry”, with nothing but his brilliant mind and ambition. Along the way Alexander became George Washington’s right-hand man, war hero, our first Secretary of the Treasury and creator of our federal reserve system. Miranda did what no other human has ever done – imagined Alexander’s story as one that “embodied” today’s language of the street – rap and hip-hop.
I must admit that I know absolutely nothing about rap and hip-hop, but the rhyming couplets and intricate word-play used to tell Alexander’s story can be appreciated by anyone who loves language. I have read that rap is the music of ambition and of defiance, and for Miranda, Alexander personified those two qualities as bad boy outsider and uber striver who fought to fit in and was obsessed with the legacy he would leave behind.
I have listened to the original soundtrack dozens of times, and I was a bit worried that with the original cast gone, I wouldn’t enjoy the music as much. But it’s the kind of musical that isn’t dependent upon a star or cast defining it in a way that basically kills the show once they have left. It’s also the first musical where I listened to the soundtrack before seeing it, so I couldn’t wait to see how the songs I loved were staged and choreographed.
Like the song that ends Act One, the action on the stage is “non-stop”. The actors and ensemble move in and out and up and down the stage, moving instantly from one scene to another. The set has a lot of wood and masonry and looks like both a ship and a building under construction. The actors wear period costumes from the neck down, but from the neck up their looks are contemporary – no powdered wigs.
But it is the music and the lyrics and the emotions contained in them that enthrall you, from Aaron Burr’s opening lines to Eliza’s closing ones. They capture you and never let you go. Along the way there are moments that make your spirit soar and others that make you dissolve into a sobbing mess. It would be impossible for me to pick my favorite moments – certainly every time King George struts onto the stage with his cheeky malevolence – the show-stopper “The Room Where It Happens” – Eliza describing the first time she sees Alexander in “Helpless” – Washington telling Alexander that “History has its eyes on you” – the Battle of Yorktown when they realize they’ve won the war – but every song is a wonder. It’s hard to believe that so much genius lives in the brain of one person, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and I still can’t wrap my head around it.
Music, art, theatre – we forget that the best art changes us and forces us to see the world with new eyes. Hamilton the musical reminds us that history is messy, that no one is perfect, that we aren’t in control of who tells our story. It masterfully brings the audience together for three hours in solidarity, in the shared experience of witnessing a story wonderfully told as we share in this magical space. The birth of our nation was truly a fluke, and the colonies defeating Britain, the superpower of the time, was an unimaginable “world turned upside down”. Though far from perfect, America exists today because men like Hamilton and Washington passionately believed in something bigger than themselves, something that would outlive them.
To be reminded of that in these turbulent times is truly a blessing and a catharsis, and I just wish that every person in this country could experience it. I think it could heal many of our wounds and bring us together in a way that only exceptional art can. Alexander Hamilton believed passionately that we needed to identify ourselves and come together as members of a nation, not just residents of individual states. He was flawed, to be sure, but his is a story that’s now being told in a way that will never be forgotten.
“Let me tell you what I wish I’d known
When I was young and dreamed of glory.
You have no control:
Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?”
— George Washington to Alexander Hamilton
Just thinking about this brings the goosebumps back.
P.S. Thanks to my husband Bill who bought these tickets for the six of us. Wishing the tickets weren’t so insanely expensive but so grateful to him for getting them for us anyway.